Reflections on the Meaningful Life

Recently I’ve been trolling through the articles in Positive Psychology News Daily (PPND) looking for ones on various topics — such as positive emotion, flow, goals, positive interventions, strengths — in order to create image maps for others to use as reader’s guides.

Some topics have been written about often — especially gratitude and using strengths. But some have been barely touched, for example, meaning and The Meaningful Life. When I looked a littler further, I found that meaning has also not been addressed very much in the positive psychology literature. Because the Meaningful Life is one of Seligman’s three pathways to happiness, I initially found that surprising, but on reflection, maybe it’s a harder than average topic to address in an empirical way.

Some people define The Meaningful Life as working toward goals that serve a cause larger than oneself in a positive way. That’s fine for people in the active times of life, but when I look at people my mother’s age, I think it isn’t inclusive enough.

I posted an article in PPND about meaning at work as part of meaning in life. Some interesting discussion ensued in the comments, including one comment that people are socialized to think they ought to find meaning in work, become unhappy when they don’t, and could be looking for meaning in other parts of their lives instead. Well said. It’s common for a person to think that what works for him or her works for everybody. So people who find their primary meaning in work may find it hard to understand people who work for money to support families or hobbies that are their primary sources of meaning.

Professor Roy Baumeister

Professor Roy Baumeister

Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs (2005, p. 615) also comment, “Because work does not easily lend itself to existential significance, however, relying on career for meaning in life is associated with career burnout.”

Baumeister and Vohs (2005, p. 610) associate the quest for meaning in life with four main needs:

  1. Purpose: Present events draw meaning from their connection to future outcomes — objective goals and subjective fulfillment.
  2. Values, which can justify certain courses of action
  3. Efficacy, the belief that one can make a difference
  4. Self-worth, reasons for believing that one is a good and worthy person

Although people tend to think of meaning as singular, they quote Emmons (1997), “Empirically, however, people’s lives usually draw meaning from multiple sources, including family and love, work, religion, and various personal projects.”

Professor Kathleen Vohs

Professor Kathleen Vohs

There’s lots more food for thought in the Baumeister and Vohs article. For example they describe actions one can take in pursuit of the 4 needs and ways of interpreting suffering in terms of the 4 needs. I expect I’ll come back to this topic again. For right now, let me end with their proposal that “meaning is necessary but not sufficient for happiness” (p. 612). This may help answer the question that a friend recently asked me: Why does it appear that becoming a parent seems to make people less happy (from a recent Newsweek article). Baumeister (1991) saw extensive evidence that having children reduces parental life satisfaction, but increases the meaningfulness that they experience in life. In my experience, the life satisfaction goes up and down, but the meaningfulness of being a parent stays constant.

Baumeister (1991). Meanings of life. New York: Guilford.Baumeister, R. & Vohs, K. (2005). Meaningfulness in life. In C. R. Snyder & S. Lopez, Handbook of positive psychology, pp. 608-618). Oxford UK: Oxford University Press.
Emmons, R. (1997). Motives and goals. In R. Hogan & J. A. Johnson (Eds.), Handbook of personality psychology, (p 485-512). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.


Filed under Meaning

3 responses to “Reflections on the Meaningful Life

  1. scotchcart

    Thank you for this tip. I pick up Google Alerts on positive psychology and happiness and finding an article of substance is so rare.
    Thank you soooo much.

    [I blog at

  2. Jeff

    I’ve noticed the dearth of meaningful articles as well. I thought such an important area would have more authorship. Well, it looks ripe for the writer’s quill. I can’t wait to see your musings on the subject.

  3. Awesome blog! Subscribed on rss. Regular will read it. Good job.

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